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A Response to 'Pretty Straight Guys' by Nick Cohen

For all my praise in other places for work from the likes of Al Franken and (sometimes) Michael Moore, I'm not a great fan of polemic per se. I don't deny that it serves a valuable role in the world of political commentary, as do all other branches of satire, but more often than not I just prefer a bit of straight-talking analysis and a little less snidey ranting. So if you want to satirise people and entertain me at the same time, make sure you're good at it!

Of those who are good at left-wing polemic, the best that America has to offer is probably the aforementioned Franken - certainly better than the ever-pungent but over-exposed work of Moore - while over here the best is probably... ooooh I dunno actually.

A few months ago I'd probably have said journalist Nick Cohen. He's certainly got his ear more firmly to the ground than most, and knows how to express his indictments of New Labour and other far-right institutions in a clever, cutting and amusing way. And in his recent(-ish) book, 'Pretty Straight Guys', his damning analyses of Tony Blair, the movers and shakers in the City, and the spin mechanisms that dominate modern political life appear, at first glance, to be all the proof we could need of that.

But having re-read extracts of it a few weeks ago, I'm afraid I've had to reassess that view a little. Much of what he wrote in it, especially about the evils of the Enron scandal and the dotcom bubble, was brilliantly expressed and very accurate, and his conclusions were largely very persuasive. But. But-but-but-but-but... Taking the book as a whole, I couldn't help getting the very strong impression that at certain points while he was writing it he'd relapsed into the classic role of the stereotypical left wing commentator; he ceased merely trying to offer a different angle on events from the one we usually get from the mass media, and resorted instead to arguing with the majority opinion for the sake of it.

The section of the book that reads as the most powerful is also the one that brings the whole thing down. Cohen offers a different perspective on the War in Iraq to the majority one, and, it's fair to say, quite different from the one I expected of him. Although few of the points he makes are especially new, the combination he offers is fresh. He speaks out quite passionately in favour of the invasion, stating with a furious certainty that the horrors of the Saddam regime were in themselves an excellent justification, and offers an interesting, but ultimately flawed, criticism of those who protested against the war. His arguments are; -

1. Too much emphasis was placed by the opponents of the war on the issue of who armed Saddam Hussein in the first place. Consistency is all very well, but fussing about whoever's fault it was how he got the Weapons of Mass Destruction is not going to solve the problem of disarming him (assuming he had any such weapons, which of course he didn't, but let's leave that for a moment...).

2. Any involvement the West has with the Gulf is always written off by the general public as being 'all about oil', when in fact there is little indication at all that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with that whatsoever. Those who point out that the first thing the American troops did on invading was to secure the oilfields are forgetting the environmental disaster that Saddam caused in the Gulf War when he set the oilfields on fire. The fields had to be secured first to make sure he didn't get the chance to do it again.

3. None of the opponents of the war actually came up with a sensible alternative for resolving the Iraqi issue, which had carried on for over twelve years and had cost far more innocent lives through oppressive rule, sanctions and containment strategy than were likely to be lost by war. If engagement, disengagement, uprisings, assassination attempts, mutinies, CIA coups, and natural death weren't gonna get rid of Saddam, what else does that leave except war?

4. There wasn't a choice between war and peace in Iraq - because war had already been going on perpetually there between the Government and its subjects for over twenty years. However bad a puppet regime in Iraq sponsored by Bush would be, it has to be better than the one Saddam built.

5. Isn't it bizarre that of all the many things that Blair has done in Government, it's a war to get rid of a brutal dictator, by far the most left wing policy of his administration, that appears to have imperilled his leadership the most? It's usually right wing Governments that are least interventionist on humanitarian lines, and indeed are far more prone to doing underhand business with oppressive states. So for once, Blair was actually doing something akin to the Socialist principles that his party once espoused. In the face of the Ecclestone bribery, the Hindujah affair, the links to Enron, the demolition of welfare, and the sell-out of the working class to foreign business interests, what was the one thing that the British centre-left wouldn't overlook? A war to liberate an oppressed people.

In fact, what I find bizarre is that the war, of all things, is the one major area of New Labour policy that Cohen chooses to defend. Here are my answers to the above points...

1. "Too much emphasis was placed by the opponents of the war on the issue of who armed Saddam Hussein in the first place..."

Yeah I can't argue with that, and I've often thought it myself. People who argued against the war by saying, "Well we sold them the arms in the first place!" were not helping matters one little bit. By all means let's stop selling arms to dictators, let's convict those companies and politicians who do so, and let's abolish all future arms fairs on the banks of the Thames. That'd be good for preventing similar crises in future, for sure. But the problem is it won't actually do anything about disarming the dictators who've already got their hands on massive arsenals of weaponry. It could even be argued perfectly convincingly that as we were the ones who sold the arms to Iraq in the first place we have a moral responsibility of getting rid of them.

Of course, the whole flaw in that argument goes beyond this, and that's the point that the weapons that Blair sold us the war on didn't exist. And before anyone says, "That's easy to say in hindsight," it was easy to say it in foresight too. One of the prime objections that everyone was making beforehand was that the evidence Blair had put forward for the arms looked decidedly dodgy, and that what threat Saddam posed was minimal. In short, in international terms, containment was working, but anyone who pointed that out at the time was accused, quite perversely, of being an appeaser.

Oh and by the way, at the time of writing it's just three days after yet another arms fair on the banks of the Thames (which, typically, has been given no mention in most parts of the media, and I only stumbled on reference to by chance when browsing a few websites). So not only was the cure unnecessary, but the prevention is still being overlooked. So much for our moral responsibility of disarming brutal regimes.

2. "Any involvement the West has with the Gulf is always written off by the general public as being 'all about oil'..."

In fact, this skepticism is a relatively new phenomenon - up until around twelve years ago the wider public would generally take their leaders' word for these things. They've stopped doing so now, which is no bad thing, and there's a good reason why involvement in the Gulf is always written off as a campaign for oil. It's because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that's exactly what it is. American and British strategists, going back to the 1930's, have made no secret of their desire for control of the Middle East and the vast reserves of oil that were discovered there during the inter-war period. In fact, the business of controlling the oil was the main deciding factor in the way the region was carved up by the British Government after World War II ended.

And as for there being little indication that the war had anything to do with oil, well, it might be a good idea to look again, and not just in the direction that Bush and Blair wanted people to look in. Just one such indicator - and by no means the only one, or even the most telling one - is the incredible amount of contracted work signed out to American oil-drilling and construction firms for the job of rebuilding Iraq... before the war had even started. Oh, and most of the firms in question have close links to the Bush family or Dick Cheney...

I could just about accept suggestions that the war in Afghanistan had nothing to do with oil, as direct evidence for that is genuinely thin on the ground. But even there, the appointment of Hamid Karzai, a former official for Unocal, as puppet ruler, and the proximity of the planned Caspian Sea oil/gas pipelines in development, do still leave a whiff of suspicion lingering in the air.

Oh and securing the oilfields for environmental reasons? Yeah right, that's a good 'un. I suppose we also have to believe George H. W. Bush set up the northern No-Fly Zone to protect the Kurds from attack, do we? And that the nasty gurgling cough that my late Grandmother suffered from had nothing to do with the fact that she smoked forty a day? How can anyone believe that a Government headed by George W. Bush, especially after its abandonment of the Kyoto Protocols, has any environmental concerns whatsoever?

3. "None of the opponents of the war actually came up with a sensible alternative for resolving the Iraqi issue..."

Well it depends on what is meant by a resolution. In international terms, as I mentioned in point 1, the containment strategy was working fine. With a certain amount of flexibility, International Law only really concerns itself with the threat nation states pose toward one another, not what threat Governments pose to their own population. Therefore, in purely international terms, there was no need for another solution.

If on the other hand, Cohen means that we needed to solve the problem of Saddam himself, well that was never really the issue at hand. If Tony Blair had really wanted it to be about the need for regime change then I wish he'd just said so, and then maybe we could've debated that and not all of those silly bogeymen fantasies about WMD's that could be deployed at 45 minutes' notice. Instead, Blair actually went so far as to say that regime change was definitely not an aim, and that if Saddam were to surrender his weapons he could have stayed in power.

What Cohen misses is that, although there are certainly plenty of exceptions, the anger a lot of people felt wasn't really about the invasion itself, but the lies told about why it happened - the way that the reasons for going to war seemed to change every other day. There was a terrible feeling that Blair was determined to go to war no matter what happened and that he was just testing people to find the excuse that they objected to the least. For sure there'd still have been plenty of pacifists out there who would've insisted on no war no matter what happened, but people like that exist everywhere and always have. (Plenty of pacifists condemned Britain simply for defending itself in World War II!)

The bottom line there is that any declaration of war on another country needs to be justified before it can be made, and the justification that Blair resorted to turned out to be untrue, and it never smelt right from the word go. If, as Cohen suggests, regime change was a good enough reason in its own right, why was Blair so afraid to suggest it? And further, as Blair turned down the opportunity to say that regime change was an aim of the war, doesn't that mean, by Cohen's own arguments that getting rid of Saddam was the best goal, that he was aiming for the wrong thing?

Either way, it's noticeable that Cohen, who spends the rest of the book loudly condemning the likes of Blair, Alistair Campbell and Keith Vaz for being compulsive liars, almost entirely brushes over the issue of Blair lying about the Iraq War. Whether the invasion was justified on other grounds is really beside the point. The point is that the reason given to justify it was untrue, and Blair was conscious of that fact - he was warned more than once by his Intelligence offcers that they weren't confident at all that Saddam had WMD, but he still claimed he had incontrovertible proof. A Prime Minister who lies to the country to get his way is of course nothing new, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be angry about it when one of them gets caught in the act, even if he does it for humanitarian reasons - which is a very dubious claim in itself.

4. "There wasn't a choice between war and peace... However bad a puppet regime in Iraq sponsored by Bush would be, it has to be better than the one Saddam built."

I was shocked when I first read that claim, and I've actually become more shocked each time I've read it since. I can honestly say I think it was a disgraceful act of blind supposition on Cohen's part, and one that was deeply out of character for him. Not only is it not definite that the new Iraq will be any better than the old one, there is enormous scope for it to be worse, and any confidence I had at all in the changeover was soon shot down by the choice of caretaker leader. Now I don't need to go into details about the nature of the man whom Bush has installed as Iraq's interim PM, I've made the points clearly enough elsewhere, and more than once. All I need say in summary is that Iyad Allawi is a sickening killer in his own right, and thanks to US backing (through his past associations with the CIA and MI6) the chances of him retaining control after the current election seem close to odds-on. And as soon as the world's backs are turned, I dread to think of what kind of society he would choose to build. It could certainly be worse than Saddam's handiwork.

One of the reasons for this - little though I want to sound like I'm defending the man who tried to wipe out the Iranians and the Kurds - is that even Saddam's rule wasn't quite as barbarous as it's usually painted. Iraq was often made out by western commentators to be a land of perpetual fear, oppression, misery, destitution and despair, where no one had any freedom of thought, deed or action. Most of the above is true, but in large part this was actually caused by sanctions imposed by the British and the Americans after the Gulf War. (Despite periodic attempts by Western politicians to blame Saddam for 'obstructing distribution', the reality is that food, medicine and supplies for other basic amenities were constantly blocked in the UN by the USA and the British, above repeated and despairing objections by the French, the Russians and the Germans, who identified the patent absurdity in suggestions that stocks of Weetabix, paracetamol or anti-cancer serums could be used to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction.)

And as for the claim that there was no freedom of thought, that the minds of Saddam's ignorant, crushed people were controlled by propaganda from his palace in Baghdad... this really is very unlikely. In reality, Iraq, before the Gulf War at least, had a very healthy and largely well-educated population. Literacy levels were by far the highest in the Middle East, and among the top twenty countries in the world - higher than Britain's position would be throughout the mid-90's - and there was a prosperous, fairly modern society with a booming middle class. And this was partly a result of the occasional good things Saddam did for the infrastructure of Iraqi society e.g. building many top-rate hospitals (free healthcare, something that America is pretty short of) and schools, and developing the most sophisticated and generous welfare state in the Arab world.

So however evil Saddam was in his dealings with neighbouring countries, no matter how ruthlessly he protected himself against internal opposition, however jealously he clung to power, and however insidious his rise to power was in the first place, he really didn't treat the great majority of his people that badly. As long as they got on with their lives and didn't annoy him, he left them alone. There was no 'twenty-year war between Saddam and his people', as Cohen puts it, the most perplexing of his claims.

It was only after the Gulf War, with the sanctions and the widescale fall-out from Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons used by the Allies, that Iraq became a particularly terrible place to live. The nonsensical, cruel and excessive sanctions not only left schools ill-equipped to educate their children (meaning that child literacy levels have dropped from the best in the Middle East to the bottom ten per cent anywhere in the World), but also deprived the country of the basic machinery required to decontaminate the zones affected by DU, and the medicines required to treat people who'd been exposed. The result is a dizzying surge in cases of leukaemia and birth defects across Iraq, a country that, prior to the war, had hardly ever heard of such afflictions. Throughout the 1990's the mortality figures for Iraqi children under the age of five averaged at 5,200 deaths per month. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan took fewer lives than the sanctions took in Iraq.

None of this was Saddam's work. It's fair to say that he didn't care, and it's also fair to say that while the masses were starving and dying of preventable illnesses, he continued to live in obscene luxury in his palaces and mansions. But there's no point condemning him for not saving his people when any path he might have taken to doing so was blocked by the USA and the UK. Whether he would even have bothered had such paths been opened to him again is debatable, but there was at least a chance.

Far from acknowledging this, Cohen instead chooses to mock the likes of Tony Benn, George Galloway, Claire Short and John Pilger simply for pointing out that the sanctions were the root cause of most of the suffering in Iraq. (By the way, on a professional research note, someone should point out to Cohen, who refers to him as 'Noam Chomsky's British disciple', that John Pilger is actually an Australian, and in his own right he has a career in investigative journalism that outstrips Chomsky's by some distance. The fact that Cohen appears unaware of these details smacks of laziness on his part.)

And coinciding with point 3, consider this as well; with the people so crushed by starvation, illness and devastation, is it any wonder that there was no method of getting rid of Saddam other than war? Scarcity of food led to strict state-controlled rationing, so the people were more dependent on Saddam than ever before just to get enough food to stay alive. They were never going to dare do anything to upset him so long as he had absolute control over when they had their next meal. How any people battered to the edge of extinction by deprivation and illness could possibly have the strength to rise up against an all-powerful dictator is unclear, but when the dictator's been given a bargaining chip like that, there really isn't a hope in hell of a successful uprising. Had the non-essential sanctions on food and medicine been eased, things might have gone very differently.

5. "Isn't it bizarre that of all the many things that Blair has done in Government, it's a war to get rid of a brutal dictator...that appears to have imperilled his leadership the most? ...What was the one thing that the British centre-left wouldn't overlook? A war to liberate an oppressed people."

This would be okay, but it's not actually true. Humanitarian intervention is generally a characteristic of the left, granted, but it's nonsense to say that this particular war was a left wing policy. Otherwise we'd also have to accept the self-evident absurdity that the USA was following Socialist principle by intervening in Vietnam or Korea. The policy that led to war in Iraq, be it linked to oil or not (and I don't care what Cohen wants to think, it was linked to oil), was nothing to do with humanitarian or leftist principle and everything to do with the longstanding policy of 'US primacy'.

In 1948, just as the USA had secured its position as the world's foremost industrial power, George Kennan, one of the country's top economic and political strategists, made the following chilling declaration;-

"We have 50 per cent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 per cent of its population... our real job in the coming period... is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality... we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation."

Paul Wolfowitz, one of the highest figures in the Bush government, has long followed this way of thinking, mixed in with a classic neoconservative, pro-Christian zeal. He openly believes it is America's duty to go to the rest of the world, establish its superiority over all of it, and make everywhere as American as possible.

It's fair to say that almost every American President (Democrat or Republican) since Kennan's time has also followed this program with a similar, if thinly-disguised, enthusiasm. With Wolfowitz adding such a zealous spin to it, Bush's interpretation is perhaps the most aggressive of all. Whatever the case, from the above it does not sound to me like a noticeably left wing program that Blair, in following Bush, has subscribed to.

It's also fair to say that the current American involvement in the Middle East is the central part of this program. Wolfowitz is one of Bush's three closest advisors, and it was through his and Cheney's influence that Bush decided to invade Iraq in the first place. This was a policy that the neocons had set their sights on before Bush even became President. In that regard, the 9/11 disaster was a God-send to them, as it gave them exactly the anti-Middle East excuse they'd been looking for to attack Saddam. We must therefore remember it wasn't even Blair's decision to go to war, only to join in when someone else decided to.

In short, Blair was not at his most 'left wing' by serving as Bush's lapdog. He was in fact being thoroughly conservative - perpetuating still further the long and pusillanimous history of British Prime Minister apologia for, and subservience to, a growing succession of US Presidents. His interventions in Sierra Leone and East Timor were far more noticeably leftist policies than the War in Iraq.

From the above, it might appear that I'm dismissing 'Pretty Straight Guys' as an analysis, but I'm not. For the most part it is a well-written work, at least from a literary point of view. And as I said before, it is very clever, accurate and informative on a number of other matters. However, Cohen's tirades against opposition to the Iraq war were, at various points, nonsensical, and even seemed to be deliberately going against the grain just for the sake of standing out from the crowd. As that impression was what stirred me to write a reactional piece, that was what I focused on. I would still recommend people read the book though.

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